It’s inevitable: every time a wildly successful video game comes along, imitators quickly follow in its footsteps. The tradition began with Pong and Pac-Man clones, and that practice has continued on PCs, consoles, and smartphones ever since. “Homages” at best and “blatant ripoffs” at worst have always been a part of the game industry.
I couldn’t help but think of this after my first thrilling time playing PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds in May of this year. You may have heard about this PC game: it’s a somewhat familiar-looking military shooter, albeit with clever rules that gradually force dozens of players to a giant island’s random “center” point. The result feels like a video game version of the Japanese film Battle Royale. The “early access” game is also setting records for concurrent player counts on Steam—which is particularly wild considering it costs $39.99, as opposed to popular free-to-play games like Dota 2.
Before the player counts climbed sky-high, however, I had already predicted a very PUBG future. “How long until other games rip this off?” I said to my online team via voice chat, shortly after I was sniped while foolishly running across one of PUBG‘s open fields.
The answer: about half a year. Other game studios have hinted at attaching PUBG-like modes to their own franchises, but Fortnite, the “eventually free-to-play” co-op shooter from Epic Games, is possibly the first big-studio game to go all-in with PUBG fever. Its new player-versus-player (PvP) mode, dubbed “Battle Royale,” shoehorns many of PUBG‘s ideas into Fortnite‘s take on crafting and gunplay. This mode is currently in a limited test state, but it will soon become entirely free to play for all PC and PS4 gamers starting Tuesday, September 26.
Ahead of that wider public launch, PUBG‘s publishing team at Bluehole Inc. made a pretty strong statement on Friday. It reads like a warning shot before a major conflict. So this seems like a good time to look at the statement, at the ecosystem of games that imitate other games, and at my impressions of the very PUBG-like mode currently being tested in Fortnite. The meaty question: can other companies pull off such a tribute, either in practical or fun-factor ways?
“Replicating the experience”
Let’s start with Bluehole’s Friday statement, which the company describes as “a response to community concern”—meaning, not a declaration of legal intent.
The money quote from the statement comes from Bluehole VP Chang Han Kim: “After listening to the growing feedback from our community and reviewing [Fortnite Battle Royale’s] gameplay for ourselves, we are concerned that Fortnite may be replicating the experience for which PUBG is known.”
After that, Kim points out how often Epic has specifically called PUBG out by name while promoting Fortnite‘s new mode, which he says is “not right.” (In one example, Epic announced the game’s new mode by saying, “We love Battle Royale games like PUBG and thought Fortnite would make a great foundation for our own version.”)
There’s a mention of “an ongoing relationship with Epic Games throughout PUBG’s development,” but Kim doesn’t specify what that exactly means or whether it hints at any legally actionable issue of “stolen” work or violations of any private agreements between the companies. PUBG uses Epic’s Unreal Engine 4 product, which Fortnite also uses to render its 3D content.
The statement takes an unusual step of acknowledging a devil’s-advocate quote about PUBG-like games from the game’s creator, Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene: “Other companies will, of course, enter the marketplace, but I would just hope they put their own spin on the game mode and not just make a carbon copy!”
The statement concludes with this vague hint at what’s to come: “The PUBG community has and continues to provide evidence of the many similarities as we contemplate further action,” Kim says.
Bluehole seems to be intentionally vague in this statement, perhaps owing to the letter’s “response to community concern” premise. Bluehole’s staff, including developers of its games, are no strangers to responding to their online communities, and remaining silent in the face of fan response probably isn’t an option. But walking up to the precipice of action and instead merely expressing grave “concern” leads to important followup questions. What exactly is being replicated? And what action could Bluehole actually take? Like, could Bluehole actually get anywhere near suing Epic?
Very few allegations of “your game copied my game” go to trial. As Steve Golson, a developer of the original Ms. Pac-Man clone Crazy Otto, told a GDC crowd in March 2016, game companies have traditionally been timid about suing “copycat” game makers and thus letting courts set sweeping precedents. In Golson’s case, he believed that if a hacker or modder got a favorable ruling, that could have much more impact on a publisher’s bottom line than if bigger companies’ cases were upheld.
In one of the industry’s few cases that went to trial, Atari triumphed over Philips in 1982 in alleging that the game K.C. Munchkin copied Pac-Man. That same year, Nintendo won out in a defense against Universal Pictures’ claim that Donkey Kong had ripped off the film King Kong—which, of course, isn’t the same thing. Other game-copying cases, particularly Sega and EA’s face-off over similarities between Crazy Taxi and Simpsons Road Rage, tend to slide into a quieter settlement phase.
They’re… pretty similar
Perhaps Bluehole and Epic will find themselves squaring off with lawyers at a settlement-minded table—at least, if Sega and EA’s settlement precedent is compared to how similar Fortnite Battle Royale is to PUBG.
As an owner of Fortnite’s “Founders Pack” DLC, I’m able to log in to the game right now and test the new Battle Royale mode. The mechanical and presentation similarities are, in short, pretty glaring.
Every match of PUBG begins with up to 99 players running around in a “safe zone” on the game’s map for about 90 seconds. During that time, they can practice running around and shooting guns before the match begins. The exact same can be said for Fortnite Battle Royale.
Every match of PUBG continues with all 99 players getting onto an airplane that flies a random straight-line trajectory over a single 8km x 8km island. Players can choose to jump out at any time, at which point they then aim their own freefall drop onto the landmass before a parachute opens for a slower final descent.
Fortnite Battle Royale does the exact same thing, albeit on a different map made up of Fortnite-specific land masses, structures, and buildings. Fortnite‘s map may not be exactly 8km x 8km in size, but cursory tests suggest a very similar island size. (Also, Fortnite Battle Royale’s “plane” looks more like a flying bus, but it appears at nearly an identical camera angle as PUBG‘s plane.)
After all players have landed in PUBG, a minute passes before a random “safe zone” radius appears on the map, which all players have two minutes and 30 seconds to run toward before a slowly creeping, blue-transparent field of poison takes over the island. Whilst scrambling toward safety, PUBG players run into buildings and scour them for weapons, ammo, armor, and healing items. The poison field stops at the circular radius shown on PUBG‘s map, and then a new, smaller, randomly generated radius appears inside the original radius, which players are given less time to run toward. This cycle of poison cloud and “safe zone radius” generation continues, with the poison cloud becoming more damaging as the match progresses.
That entire paragraph: exactly the same in Fortnite Battle Royale. (Even the poison cloud looks nearly identical.)
So what’s different? Well, Fortnite is nowhere near emulating the shooting model that makes PUBG so satisfying, let alone PUBG’s sound-modeling system that both replicates realistic gunfire in the distance and offers tremendous “perpendicular sound” cues to help players know exactly where a shot might come from. Fortnite was clearly built for more active and arcade-y player-versus-environment (PvE) shooting, and many of its lower-level weapons are severely lacking in accuracy. This genre of game demands careful, sneaky play in order to survive as players run to an eventual center point. There’s something that just feels funky about filling such a shooting game with stuff better suited for shooting at waves of AI-controlled zombies.
PUBG‘s selection of cars, dune buggies, and boats is also nowhere to be found, at least in this testing phase. This disrupts some of the fun of PUBG, which uses vehicles as both a getaway device and an organic moth-to-flame system for getting combatants to find each other.
Instead of vehicles, Fortnite carries over its default crafting systems, which are somewhat limited in this Battle Royale variant. Players start with a pickaxe that can be used to break down objects in the world. With the resulting wood, bricks, and steel, players can build surfaces, walls, and stairs (but not weapons or traps). I’ve already seen this play out in weird ways in Fortnite Battle Royale. Players who might otherwise be totally vulnerable in an open field will pause and build protective walls that they can hide behind. I’ve also seen players reach a tinier safety radius, then build giant stairwells, structures, and barriers in the sky, climb up them, and begin sniping from their makeshift sniper towers. Should the poison radius narrow in an unwelcome way, those high-up snipers will build a floating bridge toward safety.
Super Mario vs. Super Luigi?
I’ve generally had fun in Fortnite‘s new mode, though that’s mostly because it resembles the stuff I already like in PUBG. As far as its differences, I’m not sure that being able to build and destroy structures either improves a PUBG clone or makes logical sense. One of the most important gameplay challenges in PUBG is managing a combination of varied terrain, long-distance viewing lines, and rapidly changing poison-radius zones. Being able to craft your way into safety creates a whole new set of superpowers that deserves balancing and attention. Epic’s take definitely feels like a sloppy, inefficient addition to the formula that’s being aped—yet it’s also the crucial differentiating factor that Epic might point to when saying, “Look, this is a unique game!”
But other Fortnite-specific elements, particularly traps and tower-defense elements, don’t fully appear in Fortnite Battle Royale as of yet. I’ve seen a shock-trap here and a bounce-pad there, but they don’t figure into the early testing combat anywhere near as much as in standard Fortnite. Embracing and implementing the game’s unique attributes would go a long way toward Epic delivering something that looks similar yet different. As of right now, thanks to so many glaring mechanical and aesthetic similarities, this current comparison isn’t Super Mario vs. Sonic the Hedgehog. This might be closer to Super Mario vs. Super Luigi.
And if you want to point to other games that are similar to PUBG, like H1Z1 King of the Kill or the Battle Royale mods in ARMA II and ARMA III, go right ahead. Just know that Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene had a lead role in developing all three of those, as well.
Should Bluehole actually take a legal swing at how similar the games appear—there’s no evidence that will happen—they may have recourse in South Korean courts, considering Epic Games has a South Korean office, but it’s unclear whether that office could easily be targeted in court for actions that may have been taken by Epic’s other offices. However, it’d be rich irony if Bluehole took Epic to court in South Korea, as the company lost in a major case filed by fellow South Korean developer NCSoft over stolen assets in Bluehole’s game Lineage 3.
PUBG and Battle Royale clones are certainly going to continue coming, if statements from the likes of Ubisoft are to be taken seriously. Those games will certainly employ some of PUBG‘s overarching concepts, particularly shrinking safety zones, to emulate PUBG‘s pace, game lengths, and intensity. Who knows, maybe Fortnite‘s version will eventually pass muster with some patches and changes—which might be all Bluehole wants in order to avoid a legal battle over what it apparently sees as “replications” of its IP.
But this sort of public statement just as much risks earning ire from fans who are used to games building off of each other—especially in PUBG‘s case, whose origins as a popular mod came off the shoulders of other engines’ and games’ shoulders.